Tag Archives: donor-advised funds

Strange Math

[A version of this piece appeared in the Chronicle of Philanthropy on July 13, 2017.]

Here’s the world’s simplest math problem.

My wife Pat and I often meet a pair of friends for a movie. If there’s a risk that the show will sell out, I run over to the theater ahead of time and buy all four tickets in advance. When our friends arrive, we hand them their tickets and they pay us back what they owe us.

So the question is this: how many tickets did the movie theater sell?

Four, of course.

But in the parallel universe of donor-advised funds (DAFs), where double-counting comes as naturally as breathing and dissembling, the answer would be six.

Let me try to explain the inexplicable. Continue reading

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Wall Street 9, Charity 0

The news last week was stunning, but at the same time utterly unsurprising: When The Chronicle of Philanthropy compiled its annual Philanthropy 400 list of the nonprofit organizations that had raised the most money in the United States last year, the top dog was not United Way or the Salvation Army, but Fidelity Charitable.

The finding sparked a series of stories around the country: The New Yorker,  The Washington Post , The San Francisco Chronicle, The American Prospect, and National Public Radio, to name a few. Journalists are gob-smacked by the idea that an affiliate of a financial services firm could claim the title of top charity – and that it did so by the hefty margin of $900 million over United Way Worldwide. (Last year Fidelity’s take rose 20%; United Way’s dropped 4%.)

But those of you who have been reading my rants about the commercial donor-advised fund industry have seen this coming for five years. It’s like watching the sea levels rise from climate change. We’ve long known what was going to happen. Now, the evidence is incontrovertible. I take some grim satisfaction in the news, but mostly I feel despair. Continue reading

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Partial Score

The late comedian George Carlin had a shtick back in the 1970s where he played a television sports anchor. With mock seriousness, he’d stare at the camera and say, “Here’s a partial score: Notre Dame 6.”

I thought of this as I read David Callahan’s perceptive interpretation in Inside Philanthropy of Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF)’s recently-released sortable listing of its 2015 grants. Through this listing SVCF, the largest community foundation in the country, shares how much money it has distributed from donor-advised funds and its discretionary grantmaking programs, and it lists which organizations received the bounty. SVCF is clearly trying to show how vast and diverse its giving is, and the foundation implies that sharing its grant table is a great act of transparency. But SVCF only tells us part of the story – and the parts that are left unexplained underscore the inherent problems with donor-advised funds. Continue reading

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No Transparency, No Clue

I live in New Hampshire, where presidential candidates more or less take up residence for the year before our primary. They’re all around us now. Trust me. Come December I will half expect to find N.J. Gov. Chris Christie shoveling snow from our front steps. (He’s very good with storms, they say.)

So yes, my neighbors and I are a bit jaded about seeing presidential candidates – but we also take our role as early voters seriously. I try to meet every candidate in my party, not to mention a few from the other side. And part of my research includes looking at each candidate’s charitable giving, a natural interest of mine. How much does each candidate donate, and to whom? I think it’s important to know. Charitable giving is a reflection of the candidate’s values. Continue reading

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